When a white woman named Trisha Meili was brutally raped in Central Park in 1989, the public, the press, and the police were looking for someone to blame. The police identified Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. They were interrogated for dozens of hours, in some cases without their parents, and coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit. They were vilified in the press, called “a wolfpack” and “monsters”, demonized as unredeemable sinners. They were locked up, chewed up, spat out. They endured years of brutal treatment in prisons and detention. When they finally emerged from confinement and were exonerated, they refashioned their lives to make meaning of their suffering. Their story, told in the series When They See Us, tells us something about the strength that people of color in this country draw from their culture and heritage, and the beauty and brilliance that they continue to create in community with one another.
But when I look at this story, where do I see myself? As a white person, I see myself in the victim, in the police, in the prosecutors. I see myself in fear and hatred. I see myself in just doing a job, in covering my ass, in state-sanctioned violence. I see myself in vengeance. The acts of deprivation, hatred, and destruction that these individuals performed make me look at myself as an oppressor. What does it mean for me to see myself in them and their crimes?
How could people be so inhumane to rush to judgment, locking up these five boys for years in punishment for something that they did not do? How could they just grab any boys who happened to be in the park that night? How could they violate the rights of children through harsh and extensive interrogation? How could they ignore the evidence that indicates that these boys were not responsible? How could they cloak inhumanity in the guise of justice? The police and prosecutors who claimed to have uncovered the sins of these boys were themselves guilty of deep moral transgressions. They sinned against humanity and blamed the victims of their crime. Where is the justice in this? I want revenge against them for what they have done.
This is my first reaction, and it is a normal human reaction to seeing the depth of their sins. But I also must acknowledge that the police and prosecutors are human beings – that they were constrained by their upbringing, their choices, and their culture. I’m sure that at least some of them defined their work as getting justice for Ms. Meili. I’m sure they thought they were making things right for her, demonstrating that men who hurt women will pay for their crimes.
But I believe what really drove them was the unconscious desire to protect whiteness. For all of us white people, the desire to protect and promote whiteness is deeply embedded in us, cultivated from birth, encouraged through our youth, and incentivized in our adulthood. Whiteness is a culture, and like any culture, it is the air that we breathe, and seems both inevitable and eternal. It is neither. Instead, it was constructed during specific times and for specific reasons.
Whiteness is a pact we made with ourselves because the Devil does not exist. It is a pact we made out of our fear that we do not have enough and cannot be enough for ourselves and our children. The fear is not the problem – as humans, we are all afraid. The problem is that our fear motivates us to take from others. Gradually, we went from taking their food to taking their land to taking their bodies, and eventually, we had stolen so much that we needed a justification, and we invented the ideas of race and racism. Antiracism scholar Ibram Kendi tells us that the common understanding that hatred and racism led to slavery is actually reversed. “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural,” says Kendi. The lie of white supremacy, that people with white skin are biologically superior to all other people, began during the 1500s, when Europeans had to justify the transatlantic slave trade. Armed with this shield, we were able to deflect our own innate moral questions about our actions, about our commission of genocide and theft of land in Africa and the Americas. Through our pact, we traded our willingness to exact physical violence on others to gain power, wealth, and influence, and to stave off our fear of inadequacy, sickness, and death.
Over the decades and centuries, people of color have waged a battle against white supremacy by demanding their human rights, and some white people have stood alongside them to demand the same. Together, people of color and their white allies have condemned the explicit violence of white supremacy. In this evolving environment, white supremacy has been less effective, and over time it has given birth to a culture of whiteness, which has learned to be subtle where its parent is bold. Where white supremacy proclaims the superiority of people with white skin, whiteness assumes it. Where white supremacy enslaves Black people and strings them up for mass entertainment in the public square, whiteness spirits Black people away to prisons to do violence in secret. Where white supremacy exterminates and steals the land of Native Americans, whiteness assumes they are gone and appropriates their culture. Where white supremacy announces that we don’t want Mexicans here, whiteness segregates them into separate neighborhoods that we can visit and where we can consume their culture at will. White supremacy says, “We don’t want them in our schools!” while whiteness says, “It’s that kid’s fault if he doesn’t want to learn the way we teach him.”
When we hear about an unarmed Black man gunned down by police, whiteness makes us ask, “What did he do?” assuming he must have deserved it. Whiteness helps us ignore that funding for schools, health care, and other basic rights are dramatically unequal along racial lines. White supremacy may have been at play in the actions of a few of the police and prosecutors if they explicitly understood they were framing these five children, but whiteness gave the rest of us an excuse to demand “justice,” then look the other way.
This willful ignorance not only allows physical violence on people of color – by giving permission for this violence, we do moral violence to ourselves. James Baldwin wrote, “If [white] Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call ‘the Negro problem.’ This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them.” To accept the culture of whiteness and its benefits, we have had to give up our ancestral cultures. We have had to anesthetize ourselves to the effects of our own actions, and to the effects of actions taken in our names. We have become emotionally stunted, unwilling to experience, dwell with, and express our feelings. We must acknowledge that the suffering that we inflict on ourselves does not compare to the physical deprivation that we continue to visit on people of color. But just because there is no comparison, that does not mean we can ignore the suffering we cause ourselves. We must hold it up, examine it, and figure out how to heal. It is only through this healing that we can begin to truly reverse the systems of oppression that hold down people of color, and white people as well.
It is through our mutual examination of our whiteness and its effects that we white people can begin to process why we turn away from the suffering of our fellow human beings. Through this reflection, we can rediscover our empathy, our compassion, and our love. We cannot redefine whiteness, but we can carve out a space within it where we redefine ourselves in relation to it. By inhabiting our emotions, by sharing our stories, and by living in true communities of support and challenge, we can build a culture of antiracist whiteness that can lead to real societal change.
Nothing, including our building a new culture, can give Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise back what was stolen from them. Nor can we give back what was stolen from those imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, or those who have received inadequate education or health care because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood where they live. But a culture of antiracist whiteness can change how we take up these challenges in the future. It can help us to consider the full range of our community when making difficult choices in our families, our organizations, and in our society. It can prompt us to call for the police and prosecutors in this case to atone for their sins, while still holding them in empathy and community. Through abiding with one another across race and difference in a community based on love and empathy, we can still transform our society to ensure that what was stolen is stolen no more. For me as a white man, When They See Us has given me that gift, a clearer recognition of the damage we white people cause to people of color and to ourselves, and what we need to do to stop.
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